Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
3/16/2008 01:44:00 AM
Panther Revival: From Nearly Dead to a No. 4 Seed
Levance Fields, who had six assists Saturday night, is one of the nation's steadier hands at the point.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
NEW YORK -- It was 86 days ago, on Dec. 20 of a young and promising season, that Pitt upset an undefeated Duke team here at Madison Square Garden. Junior point guard Levance Fields hit what would go down as one of the most cold-blooded shots of the year, a step-back three-pointer with 4.7 seconds left in overtime, to beat the Blue Devils 65-64. It established the Panthers as a legitimate top-10 team -- they jumped from No. 11 to No. 6 in the next Associated Press poll -- but coach Jamie Dixon called it "the most bittersweet night in my coaching career."
The reason: senior forward Mike Cook, who might have finished as the team's second-leading scorer, had crumpled to the floor during the win with a torn ACL, lost for the season. There was speculation that after beating Duke, the rest would be downhill for the hobbled Panthers. What happened nine days later in their next game only strengthened that theory: Fields fractured his left foot in an 80-55 loss to Dayton and did not return until Feb. 15. The basketball gods were being especially cruel to Pitt -- said Fields, "We were mad, and we didn't understand why things were happening to us like that" -- and did not relent even after Fields was back in the fold. By Feb. 24, Pitt had fallen to 7-7 in conference play, all the way out of the polls, and on the fringe of NCAA tournament bracket projections.
So what does one make of the scene at the Garden late Saturday night, after Pitt's fourth win in four days to take the Big East tournament title as a No. 7 seed? There was Fields, dribbling out the clock on a 74-65 win over Georgetown in the championship game, then launching the ball skyward before his teammates, including Cook, mobbed him on the floor. And there was junior forward Sam Young, the tourney's MVP after scoring 16 points in the finale (and 70 since Wednesday), soaking in the celebration. Young said later that it "felt like I just won a million dollars."
What the Panthers had done was return to their comfort zone on 7th Avenue and 32nd Street and revive their season, going on a surprise run that may elevate them all the way to a No. 4 seed in the NCAAs when the field is announced Sunday night. With this Big East tourney crown, the win over Duke, and the argument that their 26-9 record would be 28-7 or even 29-6 had Fields not been sidelined for a month and a half, Pitt has a compelling case to jump onto the bracket's fourth line. Such a position would have seemed unfathomable as of a week ago.
This rise was not built on a new style of play, but rather a return to the blue-collar identity that had faded during the Panthers' swoon. On Saturday against the Hoyas, that grittiness was on full display: Pitt barreled its way to the foul line for 44 attempts compared to Georgetown's nine, and the Panthers won the offensive rebounding battle 19-7, with freshman forward DeJuan Blair grabbing 10 on his own. Young even had three blocks -- all of Roy Hibbert shots -- to go with his MVP-clinching night. "For whatever reason, I didn't think we were playing as aggressive as we needed to, say 10 games ago," said Dixon. "But when we got all our guys back, we have just been more physical, more aggressive, and just more like we normally are, I mean, more like Pitt."
At the center of this renaissance is Fields, the stocky Brooklyn floor general who earned 13 attempts at the charity stripe en route to scoring 10 points. He may never get mentioned in the same breath as North Carolina's Ty Lawson, Texas' D.J. Augustin or UCLA's Darren Collison, but Fields is one of the nation's steadier hands at the point. Over four games in the Big East tournament, he had 22 assists against just four turnovers -- an incredible 5.5-to-1 ratio -- making it clear just how much better Pitt is when Fields is running the show.
While standing outside of his locker room around midnight, with a piece of the championship net stuck behind his right ear, Fields mentioned that he had the option to heal for the remainder of this season rather than return in February. "I knew the risks and consequences of sitting out," he said, "but I chose to come back even earlier than projected, and that turned out to be a good thing."
Good indeed, for without Fields this hometown party would not have been possible. The question now is, was this celebration just that -- a nice streak of wins in a friendly setting for a team heavily populated with New York-area players -- and nothing more?
The Big East tournament title game is not new territory for Pitt; it has reached the final round in seven of the past eight years. Nor is the NCAA tournament a foreign place; the Panthers have been in the dance for each of the past six seasons. What they haven't managed to do this decade, however, is make it past the Sweet 16. The possibility here is that this Pitt team is uniquely on the upswing, haven already taken its beating from the basketball gods and built itself back into a contender. This time, they left the Garden with no bittersweet emotions, only hope that their best work is still ahead.
Checking in from the final night at Madison Square Garden for the Big East tournament ...
The Georgetown band was out early in the Garden lobby, performing more than an hour before gametime. Eddy Curry sang backup.
Another street shot, from the corner of 33rd Street and 7th Avenue ...
... and Pitt warming up for its fourth game in four days.
A prediction for tonight: After winning by raining threes on Thursday, and by feeding Roy Hibbert on Friday, Georgetown is forced to win the Big East title in yet another style: by out-grinding the Panthers in a low-low-scoring affair.
Postgame update: Well ... that was a little off. Pitt amazingly showed no signs of exhaustion, kept Georgetown's guards under wraps, and may have done enough to lock up a No. 4 seed. More later from the Garden.
NEW YORK -- Another morning post at the end of the night. It's easier to get sleep this way. The Pittsburgh Panthers have already left the building by now, and have most likely passed out from the exhaustion of winning three games in three days. Blogging three straight days of this Big East tournament, I would contend, is equally tiring. But I expect no sympathy.
These are the four things I care about most heading into Saturday:
1. If Pitt can knock off Georgetown tonight -- a scenario that seems entirely plausible -- the Panthers have a legitimate case for a No. 5 seed. They were considered an 8 or a 9 heading into this week, but they're making a push based on these facts:
• Momentum. Winning seven of its final eight regular-season games, with two of those victories coming over Louisville and Georgetown, would make Pitt look rather attractive in the eyes of the selection committee.
• The Negative Momentum of Current Fives. Vanderbilt (with its opening-round loss to Arkansas in the SEC tournament) and Indiana (which lost a stunner to Minnesota on Saturday) are slumping into the dance, and neither team has much of a non-conference resume. Whereas Pitt has a win over Duke.
• The Levance Fields Argument. The Panthers only have two bad losses on their resume -- at Cincinnati on Jan. 19 and against Rutgers on Jan. 26. Both of those happened while Fields was hurt. There's no doubt the selection committee will take this into consideration.
"When it hit, at first it sounded like people were stomping their feet all at once. Then it got so loud it sounded like a train running through the place -- and we realized it was something a lot worse than that. We got up from their media seats, and the players ran off the court. All of this insulation that had come down from the roof was flying everywhere, and it looked like feathers. [Blue Ribbon Yearbook editor] Chris Dortch told me he almost got hit by a falling washer."
3. There are still three weeks of this tourney business left, but I'm not sure if I'm going to get two better answers on my tape recorder than the ones from this locker-room interview with West Virginia's Joe Alexander on Thursday:
Reporter (not me): You grew up in China. What was that like? Alexander: There were a lot of Chinese people.
Different reporter (also not me), after making a statement about how it seems like the Mountaineers are peaking at the right time: Do you feel like you're peaking? Alexander, starting to answer, then realizing the potential other meaning of this, and breaking into laughter: "Ye-- Yeah." (The reporter, oblivious to this, nods.)
4. Darren Collison said earlier this week that "Luc [Richard Mbah a Moute] is the real reason" why UCLA pulled out miracle wins over Stanford and Cal to close the Pac-10 regular season. (The junior forward, who's viewed as somewhat of a glue guy, had double-doubles in both of those games.) Now, can the Bruins manage to win NCAA tournament games without him? Mbah a Moute was on crutches after injuring an ankle in the Bruins' Pac-10 tourney win over USC on Friday. I'm far less inclined to pick UCLA as my national champ if the Prince is even hobbled; he's far too valuable to their lockdown defense to not be missed.
• Pool business: See those images in the right-hand rail? Those are your three-step instructions for joining the third annual Tourney Blog Pool, now on Facebook. Or you can just click here to begin the process, and then find the invitation to the pool on the application's home page.
As of Saturday at 12:33 a.m., we have 400 members of the Blog Pool. Ninety-two of those folks have been kind enough to friend my SI profile on Facebook; the rest -- as well as any new entrants -- are invited to do the same. • The tourney playlist, curated by the folks at Gorilla vs. Bear, rolls on, one free mp3 at a time:
Day 4's track is Beach House's Gila. Relaxing shoegaze for the calm before the Sunday storm. Download and enjoy.